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The Balcony

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It was the most ridiculous thing he had ever done.

“And you invaded Afghanistan,” John said to the reflection in the mirror, toasting his other self with the glass from the hotel bathroom, which now held a healthy portion of Lagavulin. It was the most expensive bottle of whisky he’d ever bought, a fact which once upon a time would have made him feel more than a little guilty over the cost.

But if a man couldn’t treat himself to something special on a night like this, when could he?

Which was the same reason he was at this hotel. He looked around the under-stated elegance of the sitting room [he had never stayed in a bloody suite with a sitting room before] and smiled a bit. The price of just this one night here was almost the same as a fortnight’s worth of his pension. Didn’t matter, of course, because by the time credit card payment came due, he would be beyond the reach of even Barclay’s. Maybe they would try to collect from Harry and he wished them good luck with that.

After a couple of swallows, he poured himself some more of the liquor. Quality hotel, this was. A genuine crystal glass in the loo, for crissake.

It was a lovely June night, as it happened, just warm enough to be pleasant, with a sparkling canopy of stars overhead. Unless the stars were provided by the hotel for its privileged guests, John mused; the thought caused him to giggle for a moment. He decided that making this night so nice was a kind gesture, a gift from the universe, for this particular lost soul or perhaps, more likely, one last cruel joke at his expense. Still, he was glad to have travelled just far enough out of London that the stars were actually visible. Growing up, he had always been fascinated by the night sky and at war one of his few pleasures was sitting outside the medical tent, searching for familiar constellations.

Finally, he decided to take advantage of the excellent weather. He kicked off his shoes and left the bloody cane where it was, propped against the wall. Wouldn’t make the limp any worse to go without the hated aid; he would just move a little more slowly. Maybe, on this night, he would not cater to his limp. His make-believe limp, according to the experts. Which didn’t make it hurt any less, of course. It was interesting to realise that the Lagavulin was helping more than his therapist ever had. Harry would laugh at that.

He slid the glass door open and stepped out onto the balcony, moving to stand by the brick wall from where he could look down on the extensive gardens which surrounded the hotel. From this fourth floor perch, he almost thought that he could see the distant lights of London. He swallowed, realising abruptly how much he loved the city.

He took a final gulp of the whisky and carefully set the glass down on the wall.
Leaning over a bit, he could see a few people still gathered on the veranda, having one more nightcap or maybe indulging in one of the chocolate puddings for which the hotel was famed. Rightfully so, John thought, glancing back at the room service cart which had brought his dinner. A prawn cocktail, roast beef with perfect Yorkshire puddings and two veg. All of that had been followed a huge slice of chocolate molten lava cake drizzled with raspberry coulis. There was also a small serving of guilt, because he knew that the meal would never be paid for. Still, because he liked to think of himself as a decent human being, most of his last few pounds had gone to the young man who delivered the food.

He thought it was the best meal he’d ever eaten. Second place went to the bacon butty with extra brown sauce that he had devoured years ago while standing on a street corner not far from the Tower of London. He no longer remembered the name of the girl with whom he had spent the night [as a send-off before he left London for Aldershot to begin his military training] but he remembered that butty.

It occurred to him that he should have tried to see if the little shop were still there and if they still made those butties. Too late now.

John took a deep breath of the night air, which held a faint hint of flowers and even more subtle touches of the food from the outdoor dining on the veranda. Most of that, however, was buried under the distinct and unpleasant odour of tobacco smoke.

He looked to the left and saw the orange glow of a cigarette in the shadowed corner of the neighbouring balcony. Would it be polite to say something? John realised that his social skills had more or less withered over the last few months. Not that those skills had ever been great. He was generally known as a nice guy, friendly to everyone, without actually having many friends.

There were one or two from med school, like Mike, who had actually put him on to this hotel, without knowing, of course, why John was looking for a place to visit, money no object. He only hoped that Mike would feel no guilt over having made the suggestion. There were also a couple of guys from Afghanistan that he had once been close to. Murray. Sholto. They were both civilians now, as well, but neither had been in touch. Murray, he knew, was up in Yorkshire, married with a baby and no doubt much too busy to think about the old days. And Sholto had his own problems. So their lives were very different from his. As in, they each actually seemed to have a life. By contrast, nothing ever happened to John.

While he was still dithering about whether or not to speak to whomever was sitting on that other balcony less than a meter away from his [A simple good evening? A comment on the weather? A suggestion that smoking might prove fatal?] the decision was taken out of his hands.

“If you intend to kill yourself by leaping from the balcony, I would advise against it. At this height and with the thick covering of turf below, you might well survive, albeit with a number of painful injuries. Unless you are lucky enough to land on your head, of course.”

Ridiculously, John’s first thought was that the man’s voice bore more than a passing likeness to the rich dark chocolate he’d enjoyed in the pudding earlier. Despite the grim subject matter, the words rolled across him in a warm, comforting wave and he was struck mute for several moments. When he finally did speak, he knew that his own voice was a fragile, broken thing. “I beg your pardon?”

Could he be any more English?

There was a sigh from across the way. “Don’t be tedious, Dr Watson.”

John swallowed, in a slightly desperate attempt to bring a little moisture to his throat so that he could speak. “How do you know my name?” he asked, happy that he managed to sound more like himself at least.

“I asked at the front desk, of course.”

John frowned. “Is that even legal? For them to give you personal information like that?”

Now the man chuckled [which really should be illegal, John mused] and then said, “I can be very persuasive.”

Well, it would have been folly to even try disputing that statement. A truth was a truth and John had no doubt that the voice he was hearing could persuade anyone to do…well, almost anything. So he asked something else. “Why did you do that? Ask for my name?”

There was no immediate response. Instead, he heard the sound of someone moving, stepping into the pool of light. So this was what the man with a voice that was like the world’s most expensive chocolate [which was apparently a truffle from Ecuador] looked like. Not that he had ever eaten one of those truffles, but a young woman with whom he once had a fleeting relationship thought that a box of them would make a perfect Valentine’s gift. Which pretty much explained why it had been a very fleeting relationship.

John just stared for a long moment.

Tall, slender, like something carved from pale ivory. Grey eyes into which John could feel himself being drawn. All topped with a mop of unruly dark curls. A clearly bespoke black suit and a shirt the colour of the best red wine he had ever tasted, the name of which he could not now remember.

“I asked for your name because I saw you crossing the lobby and you seemed very interesting.”

At that, John could not help the bark of bitter laughter that erupted. “Oh, yes, clearly I was fascinating. Was it my Marks and Spencer off-the-rack khakis? Or the ill-fitting jacket and unfashionable tie? Maybe it was the tremor in my hand or the limp?”

The man sneered at him. Elegantly. “Oh, please, those things don’t matter.”

John just raised a brow at him. The sigh he received in reply was not unexpected. It seemed likely that this bloke sighed a lot.

“You walked like a soldier, despite the psychosomatic limp and the dreadful government-issued stick. Your eyes surveyed the room with the expertise of a man used to walking into dangerous situations. Your tie-pin is the Rod of Asclepius, clearly a sentimental choice as that tie does not deserve to be ornamented. So clearly you were a military doctor and given the trauma, you have seen action.”

John realised that being impressed by the words was really superfluous by this point.

But the stranger was not quite finished, it seemed. “Of course, the fact that you were planning on killing yourself tonight caught my attention as well.”

John took an involuntary step backwards. “What?” he whispered harshly.

Long slender fingers gave a careless wave. “Oh, please, that was the easiest part.”

John just shook his head.

“The overnight bag was clearly for show only. What was actually in there? Probably several random garments, tee-shirts I imagine, just to make it look like the bag of a man spending the weekend in a hotel that he clearly cannot afford. And the gun, of course.” Suddenly the voice changed, losing the edge of sarcasm and superiority that had been present for the conversation thus far. “Do you want to know what else I saw?”

The short, sharp nod seemed to happen without him deciding to respond at all.

“I saw a decent, brave man to whom nothing good had happened for a long time. A man who made the decision to take his own life, selfishly deciding that the world had no more need of him.” The man took a step closer and fixed John with a gaze that seemed to be dissecting him down to his very core. “You are very wrong about that, John Watson.”

“Am I?” John hated that his voice still sounded so weak.

“Indeed.” The man brightened suddenly and rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “Just as an example, I need you right now.”

John could feel a sudden rush of heat to his face. “What the hell?” he said. “You need me?”
“Indeed. There is a very dangerous man staying in the room just below yours. An international jewel thief who, of late, has taken up a new hobby. Namely, killing anyone who gets in his way. First, a hapless nanny and then an elderly woman who stupidly declined to give up her emerald necklace.”

John was honestly bewildered. “So what do you need me for? To call the police?”

The man snorted and even that was elegant. “Don’t be an idiot, John, think things through. I could call the local bumblers myself and then they would undoubtedly be stupid , so Hampton would escape again. No, what I need you for is to help me apprehend him.” He paused, before continuing in a thoughtful tone. “You might want to bring your gun. Could be useful.”

John knew that he was gaping at the man. “Are you serious? You really expect me to grab my gun and help you capture a dangerous criminal?”

“I just said that, so yes.”

“Why would I do that?” It seemed like a logical question.

And the stranger just looked at him, as if bewildered by his words. “Why wouldn’t you?”

Absurdly, John suddenly felt like the hero in one of his favourite books. This whole situation was as unlikely as Bilbo Baggins being invited to go on an adventure. He had a feeling that it was already too late, but he reached for something logical, something sensible, to say. Sadly, “I don’t even know your name” was the best he could come up with.

At that moment, the expression in those grey eyes was more dangerous than any international criminal could ever be and yet [foolishly?] John Watson seized on the promise he saw there, just like a man drowning in a deep well would grab onto the rope thrown down to rescue him.

“The name is Sherlock Holmes and you, John Watson, will do very nicely.”

John was not sure what that even meant, but he didn’t ask. Instead, he said, “Let me get my gun.” He glanced down. “And my shoes.”

“Meet me in the corridor,” Sherlock said. And if there was a certain smugness in his expression, John didn’t care.

Instead, he just went to fetch his gun.

Title From: The Balcony by Jean Genet